by Phyllis Chesler
I do not understand what motivates sensible, even heroic, people to claim what is clearly a defeat as a victory.
I am talking about the Women of the Wall struggle for equality for women at Jerusalem’s Western Wall (Kotel) which has recently spawned global headlines. Now, everyone agrees, Natan Sharansky has presumably found a “compromise” that grants every Jew “equality” the Wall. I have been fielding calls from feminist friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to congratulate me on this great accomplishment. But it is all smoke and mirrors, a charade.
I am writing this article to dispel this illusion right now.
It is tragic that a hero such as Natan Sharansky, who had the courage to stand against Soviet tyranny is unwilling to stand with women against ultra-Orthodox misogyny and oppression in Israel. This breaks my heart since I have worked with Sharansky and genuinely admire him. However, his vision of “compromise” does not benefit women or the important original mission of Women of the Wall.
In all the excitement about Sharansky’s proposal for “equality” at the Wall, the following is forgotten: It banishes the Torah (Old Testament) from the women’s section at the Wall and, ironically, also banishes the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal denominations (who are singing his praises) from the Wall as well. Perhaps they are so desperate for a “place in the Israeli sun” that they are willing to settle for a pipe dream and a promise.
Nearly 25 years ago, I was blessed with the privilege of being part of the first-ever woman’s prayer service at the Western Wall (the Kotel). We prayed out loud, with a Torah; many women were religiously learned, some were rabbis, many wore their prayer shawls. This was the first time in history that women had “liberated” the Wall. We broke a psychological sound barrier. The date was December 1, 1988. Rivka Haut, who had catalyzed this movement, turned to me and asked me to open the Torah for the women so they may read from it, which fatefully wedded me to this struggle for Jewish women’s religious, civil, and legal rights in the Holy Land. Eventually, Rivka Haut and I co-edited a book about this struggle: Women of the Wall. Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaismâ€™s Holy Site.
Back in America, I co-founded the International Committee for Women of the Wall (ICWOW)â€”but that was only because women in Israel continued to pray at the Kotel, where they were met with profound verbal and physical violence. Both male and female “haredim” (literally, those who tremble before and fear God), cursed, hit, and attacked peaceful women at prayer. Although feminist, religious, and media interest has peaked largely as a result of the unjust and brutal arrests of women-only, I fear that little real progress has been made in terms of women-only goals.
Why is Sharansky’s charade being greeted as a breakthrough solution? Robinson’s Arch is a faraway part of the same Wall, but it is separated by the Mugrahbi bridge. It is also already available for mixed-gender egalitarian prayer for a small number of worshippers during limited hours. Sharansky proposes to expand this archeological site, something that will probably never happen. Israeli archeologists will fight it as will the Waqf (the Muslim authorities). If there is no opposition, the project might cost 200 million dollars and take ten years to complete.
Even then, it will not satisfy the mission of Women of the Wall, the group that has been the driving force behind all the lawsuits and headlines, which has been to secure the right to pray out loud in a woman-only group in the women-only section at the Wall with a Torah and tallit. As Jews. Once again, women who want to pray together with all Israel at our holiest site, including Orthodox women– have been overlooked by Sharansky, by the media, and by North American streams of Judaism. This is ironic because, unlike traditional Orthodox and haredi groups, these streams have been trying so hard to include women in their religious practice
The many lawsuits (1989-2002) that WOW-alone brought to the Israeli Supreme Court resulted in our being banished to Robinson’s Arch, an archeological and tourist site where WOW were out of sight and out of mind. WOW continued to pray at the Wall itself but were forced to hold their Torah service at Robinson’s Arch. Despite government promises to make the site “prayer worthy,” for nine years, this site has remained restricted to only a small number of early morning worshippers and is not accessible for strollers, walkers, or wheelchairs.
What WOW has asked for is completely within Orthodox Jewish guidelines. WOW has been the only Jewish group that has managed to adjust prayer styles so that women of every Jewish denomination can pray together. In the original, long-lasting lawsuit, WOW asked to pray once a month, for an hour, eleven times a year. Contrary to myth, WOW did not count itself as a minyan (a prayer quorum), nor did it change or “feminize” the liturgy or invite men to join them.
If WOW leaders and supporters were attacked and arrested in any other country on earth, it would be a clear-cut case of anti-Semitism and the denial of religious freedom. In Israel, women are now being forced to obey ultra-misogynist views of what women are allowed to do at a public holy site. This situation is outrageous.
The good news: Last week, when five WOW women were arrested at the Wall for praying, the judge threw the case out. Based on police video footage, she (yes, the judge was a woman), ruled that the violence and disturbance had been caused by WOW’s opponents and not by WOW who were peacefully praying. The police have appealed this ruling.
Why is it still so hard for religious conservatives to acknowledge women as spiritual and religious beings, capable of non-coerced autonomous, independent, and halachic (religiously lawful) prayer? When will such egregious prejudice end?
Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the author of fourteen books including Women and Madness andMothers on Trial. The Battle for Children and Custody. Her new book An American Bride in Kabul will be out in the fall. Her website can be accessed at: http://www.phyllis-chesler.com/.